I went from being a gay hip-hop star to depressed and broke — here’s how I survived
The UK’s first gay rapper, QBoy, shares his incredible journey
Like many before, when I dreamed of being a musical performer as a small child, I was dazzled by the allure of fame and fortune.
I knew being a ‘pop star’ was never a serious option as my singing voice was terrible and I lived in a dingy part of Basildon, Essex, England which seemed far removed from the wonder of celebrity and fame.
But I could and loved to dance, perform, write poems; create. So my response to ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ was always about that first dream — I wanted to be a choreographer, then a songwriter, then someone who makes music videos.
Throughout my teens, I figured I would work within the music industry, doing marketing or PR for some major label.
By that time my love of rap and hip-hop was in full bloom. Around the age of 10, during the late 80s, I was introduced to the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Neneh Cherry, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest.
By the time I was a teenager in the 90s, I was hunting down every US vinyl in every specialist shop I could find. I was covering my walls with posters of every female MC I adored. I squirreled away hundreds of Black Beat, Vibe, XXL, The Source, Hip-Hop Connection and other magazines in stacks under my bed.
I was writing rhymes at 14, but never with the intention of recording or performing them. I limited my dream because I didn’t fit the imgage in my mind of what it was to be a rapper. White, British, and most of all, gay.
I didn’t know any gay people who even listened to like hip-hop, let alone gay artists making it.
Despite this, music was, like most teens, my salvation when at school.
I was bullied daily for many years at school. I was permanently anxious, hyper-vigilant, and spent a great deal of time on my own, isolated.
This ‘keep quiet and no one will bother me’ approach was fine for school, but at 16, once I went to college to start my A-Levels, I took the opposite approach.
I became loud, proud, and in your face to anyone who challenged me — especially the boys I may have been afraid of the year before at school.
I recognised the fear and discomfort in their eyes about my sexuality, so I decided to use it against them before they used it against me.
This created a strong, cocky, bravado shield for me and I pushed my way on through to university with this newfound attitude, feeling confident and empowered.
Birth of gay hip-hop
Once I had left university I moved to London and discovered a site called gayhiphop.com. It was a total revelation.
Back then, there was no YouTube, no Facebook, Twitter or MySpace. Not even Google. I had found the gold at the end of the rainbow. There were other gay people like me who love hip-hop. And they were writing rhymes, posting battles in forums, even uploading home made mp3s of tracks they had recorded.
It was the brainchild of then Luton-based DJ MistaMaker. He and I immediately clicked and started working together. I became editor of the website, creating content, conducting interviews, writing reviews and forging relationships with record labels.
MistaMaker got me to record my first song — with him and our friend Ill Form.
That was 2001. We loved it. We made more songs. We met DJs Gideon, NineBob and artist NOKI on the launch of their debut gay hip-hop party ‘Pac-Man: A Chi Chi Man Sound’ in Brighton and we all became one big queer hip-hop crew.
We met other LGBTI rappers and singers, our collective grew. We got press, got booked to do shows. It was all happening very organically.
By the end of summer 2003 I had recorded enough songs to make an EP and I realized this is what I should be doing with my life. It was my dream of being a pop star, performing, dancing, making music videos. My love of hip-hop, rap and writing rhymes; my interest in marketing, PR, promotion and knowledge of record label side of things, everything combined.
The response to my first EP — a roughly produced collection of sexually explicit tracks (bar one) under the cocky title Even The Women Like Him — was massive. I unexpectedly caught the mainstream’s attention for an indie queer rap artist.
The Metro, The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Channel 4, I:D, Mixmag, Dazed, all spoke with me. Everyone wanted to talk about ‘The Gay Rapper’ like I was the new animal at the zoo.
QBoy, the first gay rapper
That was fine with me. I had no idea this tag ‘gay rapper’ would ultimately be a glass ceiling, so ran with it. It was getting me noticed.
No one talked about my music. The cocksure lyrics, sure, were quoted here and there. However the focus was always my sexuality. The homophobia in hip-hop through the 90s when gangster rap was most prevalent made a gay rapper in the early 2000s a perfect contrasting story.
Releasing my track ‘A Deal With God’ — about my experience of homophobic bullying — led me down a different path. I got involved in some great projects for younger people, LGBTI youth groups, schools, charities and ultimately presenting the Channel 4 documentary Coming Out To Class.
That was my finest hour, being able to help others through my experience. The fun and attention you get from performing is always amazing but it is never as rewarding as helping, improving someone’s life, inspiring confidence in others. That feeds the soul.
My last full album ‘Moxie’ was released in 2009.
I suffered a bout of depression during the recording of that album and it lingered throughout the promotion of it.
Like many young people who enter the music business, excited and keen, I had now become disillusioned and exhausted.
When I started in 2001 I was totally aware no record label was ever going to sign a gay hip-hop artist. Just wasn’t gonna happen. So I did everything myself. I became the artist, the producer, the manager, the agent, the PR, promoter and the designer. You name it, I did it.
I certainly had help along the way but for the most part I was a one-man machine and by 2010 I was out of fuel.
I was unsure if music was what I wanted to keep doing. It was not as easy to get gigs, interest in me had died down and a whole new generation of queer hip-hop artists were starting to pop up. They were getting the official label and agent support I never had, relegating me within my overly-competitive head to being old skool.
I then went on the trip of my life. India. And it was the biggest and hardest arse-kicking learning curve the Universe has ever decided to serve me.
The four months I spent in India in 2010 to 2011 was like a tragic comedy film. Imagine The Hangover meets Eat, Pray, Love with a dash of Cast Away.
From people dying to big love stories to bigger break ups, road accidents and bike crashes, stupid decisions, 10 day silent mediation retreats that I only lasted a day in, a lot of isolation and loneliness and even a point when I was homeless and penniless.
I went through so much, so consistently, there was no time to come up for air. It created a huge amount of stress and I lost a lot of weight.
Once I returned to Britain I was so fragile — unable to cope with the concrete structures of imposing London. I felt totally broken.
Just three weeks after my return I fell sick for a month. I had contracted something in India that was now making me very ill. All of this combined really made me loose my footing. I entered a depression, not the first time in my life.
All confidence I had was now lost. I felt like a shell of my former self.
I was so used to being strong and confident that without these attributes, I had no idea how to function at all. They were my only way of skating through life’s social rinks and now I was skate-less sat on a cold, wet, icy floor; bruised and busted.
This was an identity crisis. I had been ‘QBoy’ for so long — really since I was 16 when I picked that new battle suit for college — that it felt like that was the real me. So now, if I wasn’t QBoy, who was I?
As well as being very ill and still broken from my trip, I had no income. No job, no regular DJ or performance bookings, no plans, no new music on the way, no idea what to do and no ability to do anything.
When you are in a deep depression, it is so tough to bring yourself out of it and it can be very debilitating.
I also had no permanent place to live so for a year I was housed in my two best friends’ spare bedroom in Croydon, south London. They looked after me very well but I could not remain there indefinitely. It’s so difficult to explain how shocking it was to be where I was emotionally.
I was unable to work a full time position, although I tried, because I was full of fear, felt weak, feeble, unsure. I couldn’t handle any degree of stress.
Rebuilding my life
Then DJ and friend Larry Tee gave me a job doing the door at his hotly-attended party Super Party Disco machine at East Bloc.
Each Friday, alongside infamous security guard Janisha, I would greet the guests, handle the guestlist and slowly built up my ability to interact with others on a social level. It really was like starting from the ground up, one tiny Lego brick of confidence, after another.
I went to my family’s home in La Gomera, Canary Islands that summer for a month to recover. Whilst there I met my boyfriend, now of five years, and with his help I got myself together a little.
I was awestruck by the generosity of a friend and fellow artist who sent me some money to help me get a new place to live. The love people showed me during that time still warms me. Bit by bit, with lots of support, I slowly got back to feeling like a reasonable human being.
Then exactly a year after I first got terribly ill, I was hospitalised again — this time because my appendix had burst and I very nearly died.
After a long week spent in hospital with infected insides and about six weeks recovery back to normal health again, I was now determined to get my life back on track and start making music again.
My time in India was not all bad. One thing I had learned there was my connection to dance and movement. I had realised that when I really get into the zone, where I am no longer thinking about the movement I am making, I am just letting it happen, when my ego is removed from the equation, not only am I producing far better movement and dance, I am also meditating.
My next single, ‘Music Makes Us Dance’, was born.
Some time before, Larry Tee had been guiding me to revamp my image and name and had suggested I cover a song from 1979 — ‘Pop Muzik’. That was next song.
But in between each recording months passed. Trying to get the money together to pay for the studio when I wasn’t earning enough to survive on was difficult. That’s the main reason indie artists take so long to release music.
I was lucky with “Pop Muzik” as pop legend Marc Almond, who has seen me perform at gay festival Summer Rites that year, kindly covered my studio costs to get that song recorded.
I am always very humble and bowled over by anyone that helps me, donates their time or money to allow me to keep pursuing my dream. I often feel I am not worthy to be honest but remain grateful all the same.
I have slowly got back on my feet and returned to the stage where I own it again, but this time with a humbled and clearer understanding for what it means to be at a disadvantage, to feel weak or unable to deal with the things life throws at us.
My new project, QING
I just released a Kickstarter crowd-source campaign to help fund the release of my latest collection ‘QING’ — a visual EP of five songs and music videos.
Until now I was afraid to do a Kickstarter — to me I felt like I had exhausted all my favours and requests for funding from my friends and fans a long time ago — there must be a limit to people’s support and generosity, surely?
If I were to release a Kickstarter and failed to reach its goal, that would only confirm my own fears and self doubt. Not to mention the entire process of releasing your creative work to the public is worrying enough. You are putting yourself out there to be judged, and these days, hidden behind social media platforms and usernames, people can be harsh and cruel.
But I have released it anyway. Because I am trying to be brave. I am trying to have faith and trust. It’s just another part of an on-going process of rebuilding myself again.
Project ‘QING’ has been my personal journey. To release this child I have been pregnant with for four years will not only be thrilling, and a frankly a relief, but will be a sign to myself of how far I have come.
The effects of my childhood bullying and family experiences are now revealing themselves to me in the form of various mental health issues which I am unravelling and dealing with the best I can, like we all do. But the thing that is keeping me focused and motivated is this project.
Alongside the support and help I have had from my boyfriend, family, friends, colleagues, the QING project has helped me build myself up again and be able to walk forward.
It is a reflection of my own progress, development and growth. I am not just reclaiming my throne as the first British queer hip-hop artist but I am reclaiming my self. I am my own QING and I hope that you will realise you are yours too.
The entire experience has given me so much insight into other people’s lives that I did not fully appreciate previously. I have a greater understanding and empathy then ever before.
It has enriched me, as if I was a plant caught on a forest fire, burnt down to the ground and seemingly dead, but the ground from which I am still rooted, hidden beneath the surface, is now enriched for me to re-grow bigger better and stronger. Sounds like a Cher song, but it’s a real thing.
If you are ever broken down, feeling vulnerable, afraid and unable to cope, the best you can do is to take one step at a time, be patient with yourself and know you will not be in this place forever.
It is temporary and you will feel better again. Perhaps in a different way to before, bit there is no need to think you are permanently stuck.
That’s why I am sharing this — so that others may understand that even those who appear to be swimming effortlessly in this ocean of life, most of the time are really just trying to not drown, myself included.
It’s why you must focus on your best stroke and swim with intention, especially when the storms sweep in. It’s also why we must help each other as much as we can. Don’t allow those around you to drown either.
I was so lucky, throughout all my storms; I always had someone, somewhere helping me out. I only hope you all have a lifebuoy when you need it.
Find out about QBoy’s Kickstarter here.